Communications & Internet Law
The Internet has empowered the world with new ways to communicate, deliver information, conduct research, and purchase goods and services. With this tremendous new ability, however, comes a plethora of legal issues and disputes. Internet and communications law touches on countless aspects, including intellectual property, trademark, free speech, business law, and contract law. Further adding to the complexity of this area of law, many states have enacted rules and regulatory bodies governing media-related activities within their borders.
Despite the new advancements in communication technologies that the Internet has created, media can still generally be divided into two categories. Print media incorporates newspapers, magazines, and books, while telecommunications media covers radio, television, satellite, wire, cable, and Internet.
The federal agency responsible for regulating most media is the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC. The FCC is a legislative agency created by the Communications Act of 1934. The FCC has broad authority and discretion to regulate both forms of media communications and has jurisdiction in all 50 states and United States territories. The FCC conducts investigations into viewer or listener complaints regarding allegedly inappropriate material and creates guidelines for rating programming according to age-appropriateness.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press.” As a result, state and federal governments are prohibited from enacting laws that stifle or chill press speech, or prevents reporters from obtaining information subject to public records requirements. The government has some authority to control the content that is distributed through print and telecommunications media, such as obscene and indecent speech, which falls within the jurisdiction of the FCC.
To ensure that journalists will be able to conduct thorough and accurate investigations, the First Amendment has been interpreted as providing reporters with certain so-called shield laws. According to these prophylactic rules and court decisions, journalists are not required to reveal their confidential sources. Currently, shield laws are applied at the state level, and no federal shield laws exist. As a result, there are many different types of shield laws that vary in the nature and scope of protections afforded to reporters. For example, each shield law will have a different set of parameters governing the type of confidential information subject to protection and the legal proceedings during which the identity of the confidential informant must be revealed.
In the realm of Internet law, new legal precedents are being established on a routine basis that define the rights of Internet providers and users. One of the main legal issues surrounding Internet law is privacy. Many users provide a plethora of personal information to legal companies, including credit card information, bank account numbers, addresses, social security numbers, and medical history. Computer hackers prey on this information, which can be obtained through various illegal methods. As a result, companies that provide goods and services through the Internet must put in place extensive security breach prevention measures and continually monitor their systems for breaches. The Internet also creates abundant opportunities for copyright and trademark infringement, as well as the misappropriation of intellectual property. As information, ideas, and technologies become more widely available, so does the frequency with which these ideas are misused and misappropriated.
Another current issue surrounding Internet law is net neutrality, which is the concept that Internet service providers and governments should treat information made available on the Internet the same. Some commentators fear that service providers or government agencies may start imposing certain fees, such as charging users to access certain information.